CHALLENGE OF MENTAL HEALTH IN NIGERIA

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Mental disorder is a major public health issue that needs adequate attention

The recent alarm by the Minister of Health, Prof. Isaac Adewole that three in every 10 Nigerians suffer from one form of mental disorder or the other is worrying. What it means in a country of 200 million people is that not less than 60 million persons are affected by the public health issue. Unfortunately, despite this huge burden in Nigeria, only about 20 per cent of those affected are considered good enough to be categorised as mentally ill. These are the ones with the spectrum of the disorder generally referred to by average Nigerians as ‘madness’ and perhaps extreme cases of drug or alcohol addiction. That has largely made mental disorder in the remaining 80 per cent or 48 million Nigerians ignored or poorly understood.

In 2017, the World Health Organisation (WHO) said of these 48 million persons silently suffering from the health issue in Nigeria, no fewer than seven millions suffer from one of the most ignored and misunderstood form of mental disorder in the country, which is depression. This, according to WHO, represents 3.9 per cent of the entire population. It also said 4.9million Nigerians, that is 2.7 per cent of the population, suffer anxiety disorders.

However, as ignored as the health condition is in Nigeria, experts say it is the fourth leading cause of disease globally, especially in low and middle income countries where many spectrums of the disease are highly misunderstood. Among 10 leading causes of disability, five are mental disorders (depression, bipolar mood disorder, schizophrenia, alcohol and substance abuse and obsessive compulsive disorder). It is also the second leading cause of death in 15 – 29 year-olds globally.

For Nigeria, it is believed that the rising suicide trend and several diseases can be reduced if the country gives priority to tackling an ailment that is highly preventable and treatable. When understood and spotted on time, every Nigerian developing the condition can seek help before it reaches the extreme consequence of suicide. According to WHO, depression and other forms of mental disorders is not just a feeling but a real illness with established imprints in the brain. The worst part of mental disorder in Nigeria is that the victim often suffers the ailment alone without a clear signal of help. Medical practitioners under the aegis of the Society of Family Physicians of Nigeria, (SOFPON) have been raising concerns about the growing number of Nigerians living with depression, a major risk factor for suicide. “Only one-fifth of those with a depressive episode receive any treatment, and only one in 50 receives treatment that is minimally adequate,” says Dr Blessing Chukwukwelu.

This public health challenge is unfortunately on the rise in Nigeria because no commensurate plan has been put in place to address it. For instance, Nigeria has only about 150 psychiatrists to care for the population; that is one psychiatrist to 1.3 million Nigerians. It also has five mental health nurses to 100,000 Nigerians with only eight neuropsychiatric hospitals in the entire country. It is therefore no surprise that suicide is now a common phenomenon in Nigeria. From jumping into the lagoon to drinking poison, reports on suicide have moved from an occasional blip to a very disturbing trend in our country.

What the foregoing suggests is that Nigeria is not yet ready to address the issue of mental health. To make matters worse, no clearly defined mental health policy has been implemented. What Nigerians must understand is that the insane man on the street who talks to himself and sleep on dirt is not the only one with mental disorder. There are also many who appear ‘normal’ yet may be having serious mental health challenge. We need to take them into account.